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INTERVIEW: 'Sweden was a country where we included everyone who wanted to be a Swede'

The Local Sweden
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INTERVIEW: 'Sweden was a country where we included everyone who wanted to be a Swede'
Centre Party leader Muharrem Demirok. Photo: Fredrik Sandberg/TT

The Local spoke to Muharrem Demirok for our Sweden in Focus podcast about his former allies' collaboration with the far-right, and his unlikely path from a rough Stockholm suburb to leader of the agrarian Centre Party, popular with rural voters.


Muharrem Demirok, a self-described “cultural Muslim” from Vårby gård, a rough Stockholm suburb, might seem like an unlikely leader for the traditionally agrarian Centre Party.

Vårby gård is currently classified by Swedish police as a "vulnerable area" due in part to the local Vårbynätverket criminal gang, but that’s not what the Vårby gård of Demirok’s youth was like, he tells The Local.

“It was the best upbringing you can have as a kid. It was built during the 70s with the ideals they had then – no cars, only residences, houses and green areas. So we could just take our bikes and cycle around, we were the freest kids in the world.”

It took him by surprise when, as a teenager, he discovered that this wasn’t the view most people held of his home suburb.

“I remember one time when Carl Bildt was prime minister [ed: between 1991 and 1994], he mentioned a couple of areas were ghettos, and Vårby gård was one of them," he recalls. "Me and my friends just looked in the newspaper and saw ‘Vårby gård is a ghetto’ and were like, ‘what’s he talking about?’ For us, it was the safest place, the best place in the world.”

After this, he started to see Vårby gård with new eyes, trying to figure out why other people considered his home neighbourhood to be a ghetto.

“I realised that Vårby gård is very close to the city centre in Stockholm. It's very close to the parliament. But it's still very, very far away from all the decisions. Everything that was decided was decided over our heads. No one spoke to us, everyone spoke about us, but never with us. And that was a wake up call for me.”

This realisation was eventually what led Demirok to the Centre Party, despite initially rejecting it due to its agrarian roots.

“When I first opened my eyes to the Centre Party, I thought ‘this is not for me’, and it took me almost a year to come out of the Centre Party closet,” he says.


However, as it turned out, Sweden’s rural areas and rough Stockholm suburbs face similar issues as far as isolation is concerned.

“I heard our former party leader Maud Olofsson talk about this feeling that everything is so far away, everyone’s making decisions over your head – talking about you, but never with you. She was talking about Sweden as a whole and the agrarian counties, the rural ones, and her vision was a Sweden that was holding together, that every part of Sweden mattered.”

“It was the first time I’d ever heard a politician include me in its story and include Vårby gård in its story for Sweden. Including me in the vision of Sweden being something else.”

After that speech, he went to the local Centre Party offices to sign himself up as a member – much to their surprise. 

“Chaos happened,” he laughs. "they’ve never seen anyone come in and knock on the door to say ‘hi, I want to become a member’. But it was the best decision I made.”


Demirok hasn’t had the easiest start to his tenure as Centre Party leader. He took over from Annie Lööf, who had led the party for over a decade, in February last year. The party was reeling from a disappointing election result, dropping from 8.6 percent in 2018 to 6.7 in 2022.

In the most recent poll from Novus, Demirok had the lowest public confidence of any party leader at around 4 percent, roughly the same as when he took over leadership of the party.

“The political landscape has changed really fast in Sweden,” Demirok says. “It’s a whole new political landscape and liberalism, as we know, is under pressure not only in Sweden but all over Europe.”

“It’s hard to be a liberal now. Everyone’s searching for the easy answers, everything is black and white, everything is polarised. A lot of parties are trying to just sit in the mud and pull everyone else down into the mud saying ‘well, let’s sit here and have this debate about whose fault it is, who did what ten or fifteen years ago'. And liberalism is different to that.”

“It’s difficult times for a lot of people, but even when it’s more stormy, someone needs to look at the horizon and say ‘well, we’re going there, there’s something else ahead of us. There is a morning, there is light, there is something different from the mud that they’re sitting in. Now, let’s go there.’”

He doesn’t deny that there are real issues in Sweden, such as gang violence and shootings, or even just issues with infrastructure in the form of delayed or cancelled trains, for example.

“People are annoyed and feel like Sweden is not working. And when someone comes up and says ‘hey, you know what, it’s their fault. If we hadn’t done that 15 years ago, opened the door to those people, these trains would be on time and everything would be better and your life would be so much better'. That’s what we’re up against. And liberalism hasn’t found its way on this new playing field. That’s my biggest challenge.”


‘The Sweden Democrats are against everything I consider a core value’

Demirok’s party previously collaborated with the Moderates, Liberals and Christian Democrats in the Alliance coalition, which led the country between 2006 and 2014 under Moderate prime minister Fredrik Reinfeldt, who was succeeded by Social Democrat Stefan Löfven in 2014.

In 2016, the Moderates opened the door to collaboration with the Sweden Democrats, which Centre and the Liberals were staunchly against. The two latter parties supported Löfven in 2019 under the so-called January Agreement, with the Liberals later switching sides when they agreed to a possible coalition with the Sweden Democrats, Moderates and Christian Democrats ahead of the 2022 election.

Although they too are struggling in the polls, this proved successful for the Liberals in one crucial sense: they are now in government alongside the Moderates and Christian Democrats, with the support of the Sweden Democrats.


So, is there any chance that the Centre Party under Demirok may follow the Liberals and rejoin a coalition with the right-wing parties?

“I’ve always supported the former Alliance we had in Sweden, between the four right and liberal parties, and I think most of us are comfortable in that situation,” says Demirok. “But something happened when the Sweden Democrats came in, they shifted focus, and we now have a split between conservatives, national conservatives and liberals. And liberals and national conservatives are opposites.”

“I can’t see myself ever cooperating with the Sweden Democrats, because they’re against everything I consider a core value, and against the Centre Party’s core values. And if you don’t keep your core values, you might as well skip politics.”

This doesn’t mean that Demirok rules out ever collaborating with the former Alliance parties in the future.

“I would love to see the former Alliance come back… the formula that we call borgerligheten in Swedish, that’s what got defeated. It’s not the Centre Party against the government, it’s our common project that we worked on for 30 years that lost in the elections. And the other three parties said ‘well, let’s move forward with a new friend and see if national conservatism is something we can lean on’. I will never go that way.”

He considers it unlikely that Centre would enter into coalition with the Left Party either, who Demirok describes as “ideological opposites”.

“One of the biggest challenges in Sweden’s political system is that we have eight parties but only see two solutions. I can see at least ten solutions just sitting here, and how you can find new cooperations.”

He believes a collaboration between parties in the centre, excluding the Left Party and the Sweden Democrats, would be the best solution.

“Where are most of the voters? They’re in the middle, they don’t want to be on the extreme left wing or the extreme right wing, so let’s find solutions in the middle. This political stupidity, just having two teams like it’s a football game, it’s not good for Sweden, because you are always pitting what’s best for the party against what’s best for Sweden. And that’s not bringing Sweden forwards.”


‘They will never stop counting the percentage of Swedish blood in my kids’

Demirok himself has an immigrant background. His father is from Turkey, and he considers himself to be culturally Muslim.

“I’m not a believer, but I was brought up with parts of Muslim culture, especially the holidays, like Eid… in my family it was like Christmas, a time to meet relatives, go home to my aunt and eat.”

“I’m proud of those cultural aspects of it, and I don’t want to let go of them, they are part of me, and I want my kids to have part of that as well, family and friends, having those warm feelings about Eid. But when it comes to faith, it’s not in me.”

He admits that it would have been easier not to identify as being culturally Muslim, but doesn’t regret it.

“I would have been denying a part of myself and denying what a lot of Swedes think of themselves today.”


Demirok has previously spoken about encountering some Sweden Democrat politicians who question his Swedishness or calculate the percentage of "Swedish blood" in his children, due to his Turkish heritage and the fact that he identifies as a Muslim.

“They say ‘Muharrem, he’s 50 percent Swedish because his mother is Swedish and his father is Turkish, his kids are 75 percent Swedish'. I realise they will never stop counting the percentage of blood in my kids, and it hurts me. They can say what they want about me but all of a sudden they’re counting my kids.”

“Sweden belongs to all of us,” he says. “I am Swedish, I’ve never known anything else but being Swedish.”

“This issue of discrimination, pointing out who is and who is not Swedish, it scares me because it’s becoming more and more polarised.”

Growing up in two cultures has been a help rather than a hindrance, he believes.

“I love having been brought up with another culture and language so close to me. It’s made me a better person and a better human being. So I love having two cultures like that, but I’m still Swedish. This is my country.”

Last summer, the Sweden Democrats' Richard Jomshof, chair of parliament's justice committee, sparked a stir among Muslims in Sweden after he called the prophet Mohammad a "mass murderer". In November, his leader, Jimmie Åkesson, called for some mosques in Sweden to be demolished.

“It points out to kids that are growing up, maybe like me, not feeling like they believe in God, but having cultural contexts that include them. And when they hear that they are a part of an Islamist conspiracy here to take over Sweden, it does something to those kids. They don’t feel Swedish, they are pushed out.”

The Sweden Democrats aren’t the only party to do this, he adds.


“What’s even sadder is that we’re seeing it in the Moderates, in the Christian Democrats, and the Liberals are being quiet. And that makes me really sad, because we used to agree on this as well. Sweden was a country where we included everyone who wanted to be a Swede, everyone was welcome. And now we’re pointing fingers and saying ‘are you really Swedish?’”

“The prime minister said that people who have become Swedish citizens are not as likely as born Swedes to want to protect Sweden if we go to war. I thought ‘what is he saying?’ ‘Why is he even pointing that out?’”

“Your job is to unite this country, not divide it, and that’s what he did with those small, small words. Kids growing up feeling that they want to be a police officer or a nurse or a doctor or whatever, thinking ‘he’s making theories about my willingness to support my country, to defend my country, making out that I don’t want to do that because of my upbringing', and that makes me really, really sad.”

Listen to the full interview with Muharrem Demirok below:

Or follow Sweden in Focus wherever you listen to podcasts. 


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